The traditional religions of the Western Sudan were polytheistic and often referred to as animistic.
The many ethnic groups in West Africa, traditionally believed in the "spirits of the land," who were thought to ensure the success of their crops. Since it was the ancestors who had developed the original arrangement with the spirits, spiritual contact with ancestors was considered essential. The village head or chief--the mansa
in the Malinke language--had the most direct link with the spirits of the land and was thus the guardian of the ancestors. He was thus both the religious and the secular leader. Throughout the centuries of the Mali empire, peasant farmers in rural areas continued with these traditional beliefs, since they were so closely dependent on the good will of the "spirits of the land" for their well-being. Today, rural dwellers continue to honor their ancestors and revere the spirits of the land.
Islam came to Mali as a result of trans-Sahara trade.
In the thirteenth century, Islam began to penetrate western Sudan. After Sundjata, the founder of the Mali Empire, most of the rulers of Mali were Muslim. Islam was introduced by traders who brought not only material goods but a new religion. As one historian expressed it:
"For the merchant princes of Gao, Timbuktu, and other cities, Islam offered membership in a highly privileged, international trading club. Their journeys to Mecca put them in touch with merchants from Egypt, Arabia, and Asia, and vastly increased the import/export market." (Mann, p. 55)
The most famous haji (pilgrim to Mecca) was by Mansa Musa, king of Mali, and grandson of one of Sundjata’s sisters. In 1324, he rode more than 3,000 miles across the desert to Mecca, accompanied by some 60,000 escorts, including his senior wife. In both Mecca and Medina and on his way back, he dispensed vast amounts of gold. Indeed, Musa put so much gold into circulation that its value on the Cairo market fell sharply and took 12 years or more to recover its previous value.
Great Islamic universities were established by the Muslims, including the world-famous ones in Timbuktu, close to the Niger River, and Djenne on the Bani river, a tributary of the Niger.
Islam thus became the religion of the kings and chiefs, traders and townspeople--people who had strong political and economic motives for converting. However, for centuries Islam did not replace traditional beliefs but thrived alongside them. It is also thought that even the Islamic rulers of Mali never totally rejected their traditional animistic beliefs. Going on the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) opened up avenues of knowledge for pilgrims--knowledge of geography, literature, history, mathematics, astronomy, and other areas of science, especially medicine. All enriched the culture and people of the Mali Empire.
Islam is still the predominant religion in Mali.
To learn more about the beliefs and practices of Islam, download the pdf file below: